'Free Talk About Free Books': Tracing the evolution of America’s libraries through primary source documents

1. From private collections to public repositories

The first libraries in the United States were largely private, the realm of wealthy and learned men. During the Colonial Era, these men bequeathed books to educational institutions, establishing early college libraries. They also initiated subscription libraries, which were private collections funded by memberships and dues. While such institutions weren’t available to the general public, they laid the foundation for the public lending libraries that soon became a hallmark of American civic and intellectual life.

One of the earlier imprints chronicling this evolution is a broadside dated 1741, found in Readex’s Early American Imprints, notifying the public of a meeting “in order to consider the Proposal of applying for a CHARTER, to incorporate the said Company.”

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That company was the Library Company of Philadelphia, the inspiration of Benjamin Franklin. The same year, Franklin published “a catalogue of books belonging to the company…” which members could borrow to read at their leisure—a rare luxury in a time when books were expensive and difficult to come by.

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Thirteen years later another broadside, this time from New York City, proposed a subscription program to finance a public library. These important institutions were still not free, although their fees were relatively modest for Americans of comfortable financial means.

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'Free Talk About Free Books': Tracing the evolution of America’s libraries through primary source documents

“Not the sort of thing one forgets”: Using primary source documents to trace the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

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On April 26, 1986, a safety experiment at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine went terribly awry, unleashing plumes of fire and invisible radioactive particles that rained down on surrounding towns and cities. Considered the worst nuclear accident in history, the Chernobyl disaster exposed millions of people to radiation and displaced some 200,000 people from their homes.

Yet coverage of the disaster by the Soviet government and state media was shockingly circumspect, focusing on the valiant efforts of workers rather than the devastation experienced by innocent people and animals. A July 1986 report from Pravda, the official newspaper of the USSR, for example, praised the “organized and precise work” of cleanup crews, adding that “many of the power station workers serving the power units are setting examples of courage [muzhestvo] and enthusiasm in their labor.”

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“Not the sort of thing one forgets”: Using primary source documents to trace the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

‘Politically, Morally and Personally Unworthy’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

The October release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes many letters and little-known documents tracking New Mexico’s controversial Secretary of the Territory, H.H. Heath.

An unsigned memoir from 1868 offers some background:

Mr. Heath is a native of New York, for several years a resident of Washington, he was for a time a (deputy) clerk of the House of Representatives and established here in 1849 or 1850 a newspaper called the “Southern Press” for the express purpose of defending “Southern rights.”

During the Lecompton struggle he was editor of “The North West” “which supported Southern men and Northern, too, who supported them.”

He held the Post Office at Dubuke [sic] for three years, until ejected by Mr. Lincoln.

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Heath’s service to New Mexico Territory began a year earlier in 1867 after a brief delay. Writing to Secretary of State William Henry Seward on March 15, 1867, Heath asked:

I have the honor to request permission to delay my departure for New Mexico…to afford me time to make my arrangements for taking my family and household goods with me.

Four months later Heath sent another letter to Seward, this time writing:

I have the honor to report my arrival in this place and the assumption of the duties of Secretary of this Territory.

I arrived her yesterday after a very protracted and tedious trek…of 47 days…

In August Heath wrote again to Seward, this time about documents uncovered in his New Mexico office. Describing the find, he writes:  

‘Politically, Morally and Personally Unworthy’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

‘An excellent resource of 19th-century primary materials’: Library Journal reviews Nineteenth-Century American Drama

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The October 2019 issue of Library Journal includes a substantial review of Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900. Reviewer Rob Tench of Old Dominion University notes that the collection’s “interdisciplinary nature expands appeal to anyone researching the myriad aspects of 19th-century American life and culture.” Here's a brief excerpt from the full review:

Nineteenth-Century American Drama is a comprehensive collection of 4,700 American plays published or produced between 1820 and 1900….The plays reflect their time, providing contemporary and unfiltered perspectives about 19th-century issues such as women’s movements, temperance, westward expansion, immigration, war, industrialism, slavery, reconstruction, and abolition….This is an excellent resource of 19th-century primary materials about American theater, life, culture, history, literature, economics, political science, religious and ethnic studies, and sociology.

‘An excellent resource of 19th-century primary materials’: Library Journal reviews Nineteenth-Century American Drama

Before Hamilton Mania: Joanne B. Freeman on her Scholarly Obsession with an American Enigma

After Joanne B. Freeman’s captivating talk on early congressional violence at the 2019 American Library Association Annual Conference, we sat down with the Yale University history professor to dive deeper into her scholarly interests and use of primary documents. We shared highlights with you in the most recent installment of Readex’s Scholars Speak series; however, no conversation with Freeman would be complete without a focus on Alexander Hamilton.

Decades before Lin Manuel Miranda’s inspiration for the Broadway smash hit, a teenager’s interest in this American enigma was struck in the biography section of her local library. Freeman—who calls herself that “crazy person” who knows more about Hamilton than anybody else—realized upon seeing the musical for the first time that her work was the basis for the song “Ten Duel Commandments.”

Enjoy this behind-the-scenes chat as Freeman discusses what first sparked her interest in this enigmatic founding father, why after decades of research he continues to fascinate her, and how she predicts “Hamilton Mania” will impact history.

 

Before Hamilton Mania: Joanne B. Freeman on her Scholarly Obsession with an American Enigma

'Exploring African American History with Primary Sources'--a free eBook

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This unique new eBook offers these five original articles by faculty specializing in African American history, literature and culture:

  • Commemorating W.E.B. Du Bois and “The Crisis”: Reflections on Religion and American History
  • Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers
  • The Robinson Interregnum: The Black Press Responds to the Signing of Jackie Robinson
  • Writing the David Ruggles Biography: Newspapers Help Complete the Portrait of a Radical Black Abolitionist
  • A True Tale of Adultery, Murder, and Dismemberment in Black Women's History

Each author provides a first-hand description of the discovery of valuable primary sources in Readex databases, including African American Newspapers, African American Periodicals, Afro-Americana Imprints, and other digital collections.

Download the eBook.

'Exploring African American History with Primary Sources'--a free eBook

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